Last year the Librarian of Congress warned that texting was responsible for a drastic decline in American sentences, but that opinion wasn't backed up by any scientific evidence. Now, a team of Australian psychologists has come a step closer to proving that mobile phones are destroying our ability to think. The researchers show that children who use mobile phones respond to higher-level cognitive tasks faster, but less accurately, than those who don't.
94% of Australians use cell phones, and the cognitive psychologists were testing for the negative effects of exposure to mobile phone radiation, especially among children, whose brains are still developing. In addition to fears that cell phones cause cancer, one earlier study found that school-age children who had been exposed to mobile phones as infants or in utero were almost twice as likely to be hyperactive or disruptive as those whose parents used land lines.
The good news is that radio waves from mobile phones won't fry young brains or turn kids into delinquents. The bad news is, cell phones actually make children dumb (M. J. Abramson, G. P. Benke, C. Dimitriadis, I. O. Inyang, M. R. Sim, R. S. Wolfe, and R. J. Croft, "Mobile telephone use is associated with changes in cognitive function in young adolescents" Bioelectromagnetics 30.6 [early view, August, 2009]).
Of the 317 seventh-graders who participated in the Australian study, 77% owned their own mobile phone and almost all the rest had used one. The children reported an average of eight calls and eight text messages a week, with heavy users logging as many as fifteen. Even though these figures seem low -- what 13-year-old would acknowledge receiving so few texts? -- those who used cell phones more responded to a battery of cognitive tests much faster, and much less accurately, than those who seldom called or texted, or those who didn't use mobiles at all.
Specifically, the psychologists found that as mobile phone use increased, children learned to perform tasks more quickly, but their ability to remember things declined: "The accuracy of working memory was poorer, reaction time for a simple learning task shorter, associative learning response time shorter and accuracy poorer." Findings were the same whether children called or texted, and since texting involves very little exposure to radiation, this suggests that it's the act of phoning, not the radiation, that accounts for decreased cognitive ability.
The researchers went so far as to suggest that mobile phone use also correlates with impulsivity, and that cell phone utilities like 'predictive texting' actually condition children to favor speed over accuracy. (For other research on texting, click here and here; for the impact of texting on literature, click here; for its impact on politics, click here; for its impact on language development, click here).
But reports that cell phones are destroying our brains are premature. Even the Australian researchers acknowledge that it might be unwise to depend on the accounts of thirteen year olds for accurate information about how many calls or texts they receive each week. Nor is it reasonable to conclude that mobile phones cause children to respond faster to assigned tasks (ever try to get a cell-phone-enabled thirteen year old to do their homework in a hurry?) or to make their answers less accurate (they can text perfectly without looking at the keyboard; can you?).
The Librarian of Congress wants to warn cell phone users that texting leads to the breakdown of the American sentence.
All too often, we blame our technologies for whatever ails us. According to Carolyn Marvin (1988), the telephone that Alexander Graham Bell invented -- the one with wires -- was blamed for everything from ear irritations and dizziness to nervous conditions, neuralgia, and even insanity. Wired telephones don't cause these things, any more than wireless phones cause hyperactivity, lowered IQ's, or declining grammar.
Maybe children's response times are quick and inaccurate because their parents seem to prefer speed over accuracy. The reliance of grown-ups on Wikipedia and similar web resources suggests that we're willing to risk a certain amount of error just to have information at our fingertips.
But before the cognitive psychologists run another experiment to test the impact of the Web, perhaps they should consider that our modern preference for speed doesn't mean that the internet is making us stupid, either. Who's to say that in Gutenberg's day, John and Jane Q. Public (Gutenberg knew them as Johannes and Johanna von Volk) preferred the quick and often inaccurate printed word to the slower, more costly, but more-carefully-prepared handwritten manuscripts that the printing press was replacing. And earlier still, when the wheel came along, everybody jumped on the bandwagon even though wheels sped things up so fast that riders could no longer see the scenery they were passing as clearly as walkers could.
We've always been attracted to shortcuts, because time has always been of the essence. This was especially true in the good old days before penicillin, when life expectancy was so short. And it's also likely that a significant number of people have always been impulsive (look, for example, at the Iraq War, or the 2004 presidential election). As far as cell phones and the 'net are concerned, to paraphrase Pogo, it's not the technology that's the enemy, it's us.